"Defense wins championships." That's an age-old NBA saying still used by teams today.
Actually, let's just call it what it is—a cliché.
But for the Los Angeles Lakers, such a philosophy, such a concept cannot be considered a cliché, nor can its existence be deemed a mere luxury. Instead, it must become the team's mantra, a necessary reminder of what it's actually going to take to bring the Larry O'Brien Trophy back to Tinseltown.
Why? Well, because that is what it's going to take for the Lakers to compete for the 2013 NBA title.
By this point, you may be confused. After all, isn't this the team that added Steve Nash, the most prolific passer in the game, a floor general who has dropped 10 or more dimes per game seven out of the last eight years?
And isn't this the same team that has exuded unwavering faith in Kobe Bryant over the last 16 years, a star offensive player who has two scoring titles to his name and has averaged at least 20 points per game for 13 consecutive seasons?
Yes, it is. And in case you're keeping score, this is the same Los Angeles team that boasts the offensively inclined Pau Gasol and added the likes of Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks, two deft scorers who are hardly known for their defense.
And yet, despite the surplus of offense-first talent on the roster, it is defensive execution that will determine just how worthy of title contention the Lakers are.
Because while the Miami Heat are considered the biggest roadblock between Los Angeles and a championship, the fact is the Lakers need to make it out of the Western Conference first. And they cannot accomplish that by merely running over every opponent offensively. Not by a long shot.
Let's face it, as prolific as Los Angeles is on paper, it's going to take at least some time for the team to jell. This is a squad—though a vastly different one—that was ranked 15th in points scored (97.3) per game and 25th in three-point percentage (32.6) last season.
Will Nash be able to transform that dynamic in time for next spring? For the sake of this argument, let's say yes. We'll assume that Bryant and Jamison can excel as spot-up shooters and that Gasol and Dwight Howard won't counteract each other's presence.
But what then? The Lakers can score, and that's great, yet it isn't everything. Just ask Mike D'Antoni.
To reach the Finals they're going to have to navigate an array of obstacles in the talent-laden West. Eight of the NBA's top 10 offenses came from the Western Conference last season, the top three of which were the Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
Los Angeles simply cannot rely on out-gunning such potent attacks, especially ones that either remained intact or improved over the offseason.
Which brings us back to defense. The Lakers were also ranked 15th in defense, allowing an average of 95.9 points per game.
But that was before Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Yet the boys in purple and gold cannot solely rely on him. He is clearly more mobile and has better anticipation on that side of the ball than Andrew Bynum, but he cannot render the Lakers the league's most impenetrable force alone. There has to be a concerted effort by the entire team to change the culture.
We know that Bryant is going to help lock down the perimeter, and even Metta World Peace still has his moments. But that's not enough. It's not enough to contain the high-octane offenses of Denver, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, at least not consistently.
For the Lakers to do that, for them to rise above their most formidable opponents, they must play defense as a team, not unlike the best defensive team in basketball last season, the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls embrace defense as a collective. Each player is committed to his assignment, no matter what that entails. The Lakers need to follow suit. And that includes Jamison, Nash and even Gasol—offensive juggernauts who are often exposed on the defensive end.
Hell yeah, the Lakers can and need to run up the scoreboard, but they've also got to prevent their opponents from doing the same thing. I mean, just look at the Heat, who had the NBA's seventh-ranked offense last season. They complemented that with calculated defense, allowing just 92.5 points per contest, fourth best in the NBA.
Where did that balanced attack land them? In chairs, being fitted for championship rings.
But for the Lakers, it's different. They too need to combat their versatile offensive attack with stout defensive sets, only more so. Miami wasn't tasked with battling a top-10 offense every other night. The Lakers will be. And beyond that waits the Heat themselves.
So, where does Los Angeles go from here? Nowhere near the Finals if it cannot up the ante, improve the execution and enhance the motivation on the defensive end.
Because while a dominant offensive attack puts points on the board, that commodity is a dime—no wait—a penny a dozen in the West.
Which means it's an impervious defense that will be the difference between the Lakers actualizing championship aspirations and perpetuating the recent trend of coming up empty.
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